True Crime Entertainment: What’s New This Week

The following content is generally available worldwide, except where otherwise noted. All TV shows listed are for networks and streaming services based in the United States. All movies listed are those released in U.S. cinemas. This schedule is for content and events premiering this week and does not include content that has already been made available.

April 15 – April 21, 2024

TV/Streaming Services

All times listed are Eastern Time/Pacific Time, unless otherwise noted.

HBO’s docuseries “The Jinx – Part Two” premieres Sunday, April 21 at 10 p.m. ET/PT. 

Monday, April 15

“Contraband: Siezed at the Border”
“Lime and Punishment” (Episode 301) **Season Premiere**
Monday, April 15, 9 p.m., Discovery

“The Synanon Fix”
“What in the Hell Is Happening?” (Episode 103)
Monday, April 15, 9 p.m., HBO

“Fatal Attraction”
“Ride or Die” (Episode 1425)
Monday, April 15, 9 p.m., TV One

“Mean Girl Murders”
“Queen vs. Princess” (Episode 204)
Monday, April 15, 9 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“Lethally Blonde”
“The Fall of Aubrey Gold” (Episode 103)
Monday, April 15, 10 p.m., Investigation Discovery

Payback
“Dead Ends Part Two” (Episode 215)
Monday, April 15, 10 p.m., TV One

“The Interrogation Tapes”
“The Devil in Disguise” (Episode 103)
Monday, April 15, 10 p.m., ABC

Tuesday, April 16

“Crime Nation”
“Vanished: A Spring Break Nightmare” (Episode 108)
Tuesday, April 16, 8 p.m., The CW

“An American Bombing: The Road to April 19th” (Documentary Film)
Tuesday, April 16, 9 p.m. ET/PT, Netflix

“Body Cam”
“He Shot Me!” (Episode 808)
Tuesday, April 16, 9 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“Road Rage”
“Shoplifting, Philosophy and Dead Bodies” (Episode 109)
Tuesday, April 16, 10 p.m., Investigation Discovery

Wednesday, April 17

“Dateline”
“The People vs. O.J. Simpson: What the Jury Never Heard”
Wednesday, April 17, 8 p.m., Oxygen

“Murder in the Heartland”
“Living Among Liars” (Episode 905)
Wednesday, April 17, 9 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“On the Case With Paula Zahn”
“The Bitter Truth” (Episode 2707)
Wednesday, April 17, 10 p.m., Investigation Discovery

Thursday, April 18

“The First 48: Critical Minutes”
“Forensics Don’t Lie”
Thursday, April 18, 8 p.m., A&E

“Caught!”
“Prisoners Gone Wild” (Episode 114)
Thursday, April 18, 9 p.m., Discovery

“Accused: Guilty or Innocent?”
“Vengeful Shooter or Protective Father” (Episode 602)
Thursday, April 18, 9 p.m., A&E

“Interrogation Raw”
“Massacre in Maine” (Episode 303)
Thursday, April 18, 10 p.m., A&E

“It Couldn’t Happen Here”
“Benton, Missouri” (Episode 301)
Thursday, April 18, 10 p.m., Sundance Channel

Friday, April 19

“Crime Cam 24/7”
(Episode 204)
Friday, April 19, 6 p.m., Fox Nation

“Cops”
“Spring Break Wipeout” (Episode 3605)
Friday, April 19, 6 p.m., Fox Nation

“On Patrol: First Shift”
TBA
Friday, April 19, 8 p.m., Reelz

“On Patrol: Live”
TBA
Friday, April 19, 9 p.m., Reelz

“Dateline”
TBA (Episode 3236)
Friday, April 19, 9 p.m., NBC

“20/20”
TBA
Friday, April 19, 9 p.m., ABC

Saturday, April 20

“Cold Justice”
“Bound and Gagged” (Episode 709)
Saturday, April 20, 8 p.m., Oxygen

“On Patrol: First Shift”
TBA
Saturday, April 20, 8 p.m., Reelz

“On Patrol: Live”
TBA
Saturday, April 20, 9 p.m., Reelz

“48 Hours”
TBA
Saturday, April 20, 10 p.m., CBS

“Nightmare in New Mexico” (One-hour TV Special)
Saturday, April 20, 10 p.m., Investigation Discovery

Sunday, April 21

“Snapped: Killer Couples”
“Crystal Brinson and Byron Boutin” (Episode 1717)
Sunday, April 21, 6 p.m., Oxygen

“Sin City Murders”
“Bombing at the Luxor Casino” (Episode 109)
Sunday, April 21, 7 p.m., Oxygen

“Evil Lives Here”
“He Asked Me to Be His Hitman” (Episode 1510)
Sunday, April 21, 9 p.m., Investigation Discovery

“Secrets of the Hell’s Angels”
“Motorcyle Murder Club” (Episode 102)
Sunday, April 21, 9 p.m., A&E

“The Jinx: Part Two”
“Why Are You Still Here?” (Episode 201) **Season Premiere**
Sunday, April 21, 10 p.m., HBO

Movies in Theaters or on Home Video

No new true crime movies releasing in theaters or on home video this week.

Radio/Podcasts

No new true crime podcast series premiering this week.

Events

Events listed here are not considered endorsements by this website. All ticket buyers with questions or concerns about the event should contact the event promoter or ticket seller directly.

All start times listed are local time, unless otherwise noted.

No new true crime events this week.

Review: ‘What Jennifer Did,’ starring Bill Courtice, Deborah Gladding, Alan Cooke, Hong Ngo, Nam Nguyen, David MacDonald and Fernando Baldassini

May 11, 2024

by Carla Hay

Samantha Chang (actress) in a re-enactment scene in “What Jennifer Did” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“What Jennifer Did”

Directed by Jenny Popplewell

Some language in Vietnamese with subtitles

Culture Representation: The documentary film “What Jennifer Did” features a predominantly white group of middle-class people (with two Asians and one black person) who are interviewed about the case of Canadian woman Jennifer Pan, who went on trial for the murder of her mother and the attempted murder of her father, in a “murder for hire” crime that took place in 2010, in Markham, Ontario.

Culture Clash: Jennifer Pan was accused of planning this murder-for-hire plot because her parents disapproved of her wanting to date a convicted drug dealer and they found out she lied about having a university degree.

Culture Audience: “What Jennifer Did” will appeal primarily to people interested in true crime documentaries, but this lazily made documentary is dull, omits important information, and offers no further investigations or new insights.

Bill Courtice in “What Jennifer Did” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“What Jennifer Did” has a cheap and unfinished quality to it. This true crime documentary has a sluggish pace and leaves out many necessary facts. The re-enactments and dramatic embellishments are also tacky. The interviews for the documentary repeat a lot of what is already shown in the police interrogation archival videos.

Directed by Jenny Popplewell, “What Jennifer Did” treats viewers like idiots. For the first half of this 87-minute documentary film, it lumbers along by trying to look like a “whodunit” murder mystery, when it’s obvious who the culprit is. And if viewers don’t know who the culprit is before seeing “What Jennifer Did” (which is a turgid rehash of the case), the title of the documentary says it all. There’s no mystery here.

One of the sloppiest things about “What Jennifer Did” is that the documentary doesn’t even mention the date of the crime in an explicit way. Observant viewers will have to notice the time stamps on surveillance videos shown intermittently in the documentary to find out the year the crime took place. The prime suspect’s age on the night of the crime is never mentioned either. Viewers have to make some deductions about what her age was when the crime happened (she was 24), based on the choppy and vague interviews that the documentary has with a few of her acquaintances.

And yet, it’s repeated to the point of irritation that the Canadian city where the crime took place (Markham, Ontario) is considered a safe area, and the murder was a shock to the community. It would have been sufficient to have this “Markham is a nice area” commentary once or twice. But when it’s said in various ways four or five times in the documentary, it’s gets to be tiresome and unnecessary.

Here are the facts of the case that are not detailed in the documentary: Jennifer Pan (the prime suspect in this case) was born in Markham on June 17, 1986. Her parents—mother Bich Ha Pan and father Huei Hann Pan, also known as Hann—were Chinese heritage refugees who moved from Vietnam to Ontario at separate times (Hann relocated to Ontario in 1979), and they met when they were living in Ontario. Jennifer has a younger brother named Felix, who was born in 1989. Shockingly, Felix is never mentioned in this documentary about a crime that was motivated by turmoil in this family. The murder of Bich and the attempted murder of Hann happened in their home in Markham, on November 8, 2010.

The documentary mentions that Bich and Hann worked for the same car parts company (but doesn’t mention the name of the company), where Bich was a “supervisor,” and Hann was a “machinist.” In the documentary, these parents are described as strict, hard-working, upwardly mobile, status-conscious, law-abiding, overprotective and demanding. The documentary makes sure to mention superficial things, such as the types of cars that these parents had (Hann had a Mercedes; Bich had a Lexus), but fails to mention more meaningful and interesting aspects of these parents’ lives for better context, such as what they went through as refugees to escape from Vietnam and to start new lives in Canada.

Jennifer was at home with her parents on the night of this crime. But if you were to believe the selective and incomplete facts presented in this documentary, you would think that Jennifer is an only child. “What Jennifer Did” completely erases her brother Felix from this story. Even if Felix wasn’t available for an interview, it’s absolutely irresponsible for this documentary’s filmmakers to make it look like he doesn’t exist. (Luckily, Felix wasn’t home during the crime.) Felix’s reactions to the case are in public records which aren’t very hard to find.

A great deal of “What Jennifer Did” consists of showing archival footage of interviews that Jennifer had with investigators at a York Regional police station. After each archival clip is shown, the documentary shows its own interviews with investigators repeating what was already shown in the archival footage. Among those interviewed are police detectives Bill Courtice (who was the case’s lead investigator), Deborah Gladding (who is a victim liaison officer), Alan Cooke and David MacDonald.

In her initial interviews with police, Jennifer said on the night of November 8, 2010, three black men she didn’t know did a home invasion with guns, demanded money from her parents, and tied up Jennifer and her parents. Jennifer said that she was taken upstairs, while her parents were downstairs. Bich and Hann were both shot. Bich did not survive. Hann was shot near one of his eyes and was in a coma.

Jennifer had no injuries and made the 911 call for help while she said she had her hands tied behind her back and her shoulder tied to a staircase banister. She also said she used her hands to call 911. The 911 call is played in the documentary. When police arrived, they found cash and other valuable items in the house. They also found there was no forced entry into the home.

You don’t have to be a true crime aficionado to see major holes in Jennifer’s story from the beginning. So-called “home invader thieves” demanded cash but left a lot of cash behind. They knowingly left a witness behind with no injuries while two other witnesses were shot. And how exactly did Jennifer call 911 with her hands, when she said her hands were tied behind her back and one shoulder was tied to a staircase banister? The police initially overlooked these inconsistencies because they couldn’t believe this meek-looking, soft-spoken young woman had anything to do with this crime.

Video surveillance footage from a neighbor eventually showed that Jennifer was telling the truth that three men entered the home that night through the Phan family home’s front door. The door was unlocked, but Jennifer says she didn’t know why. Did these men force their way in, or were they invited in advance? If you don’t know the answer, then you aren’t paying attention to all the obvious clues that Jennifer’s story was a lie from the beginning.

Unfortunately, “What Jennifer Did” drags out this fake suspense in annoying ways, such as showing repetitive shots of police detectives looking contemplative while driving in their cars, or Gladding saying how she had a lot of empathy for Jennifer, whom she believed was an innocent victim—until there was indisputable proof that Jennifer wasn’t an innocent victim at all. The documentary’s re-enactment scenes (with actress Samantha Chang portraying a mid-20s Jennifer) are often shown in dream-like slow-motion. Many of the interviewees talk slowly, as if they are bored by this documentary. Many viewers who know what a good documentary is will be bored too.

One of the major aspects of the case has to do with Danny Wong, Jennifer’s drug-dealer ex-boyfriend. He was the main reason why Jennifer had so much resentment toward her parents, who understandably did not want her dating a drug dealer and forbade her from being in contact with him. Wong is not interviewed for the documentary, but the documentary has some archival video footage of an interview that he did with police after he knew that Jennifer’s parents were shot.

In this archival interview, Wong is never convincing when he tells police that he stopped being a drug dealer after he got arrested for it. At the time of the home invasion, Wong had an alibi He claimed to be living a law-abiding life as an employee at a fast-food restaurant. Wong told police that the main reason why Jennifer’s parents didn’t approve of him was that he wasn’t making enough money in this low-paying restaurant job. (In other words, Wong was downplaying his drug-dealing activity in this police interview.)

Jennifer is not interviewed in the documentary, nor does she need to be. She’s a proven pathological liar and doesn’t need to have a platform to say more lies. She still maintains that she never planned to have her parents murdered. An update on her case is mentioned in the documentary’s epilogue.

Among the many big lies that Jennifer told that were exposed in this case was Jennifer fooled her parents and other people into thinking she graduated with a pharmacology degree from the University of Toronto. She was never enrolled in the university and forged a University of Toronto degree as part of the deceit. It’s mentioned that Jennifer chose pharmacology because she and her parents knew that her grades weren’t good enough in high school for her to become a doctor, lawyer, scientist or engineer, which were the preferred professions that her parents wanted her to have.

However, the documentary never explains how Jennifer’s parents—who are repeatedly described as overbearing and intrusive about what Jennifer did with her time—could be conned into not going to a graduation ceremony that Jennifer knew did not exist for her. The documentary mentions that Hann was so controlling, he used to drive Jennifer to Ryerson University (in Toronto), when she fooled her parents into thinking she was enrolled there, before she faked her enrollment in the University of Toronto. It’s also mentioned that when Jennifer was in middle school and in high school, her parents pushed her into entering pianist competitions that she often won and had plenty of trophies and photos to prove it.

How could these “overbearing” parents miss out on a graduation ceremony, which would be a major milestone that these parents would want photos of too? The answer: Jennifer told her family there were no graduation ceremony tickets available for them, according to Felix’s court testimony detailed in journalist Jeremy Grimaldi’s 2016 non-fiction book “A Daughter’s Deadly Deception: The Jennifer Pan Story.” Felix also testified that Jennifer lied by stating a friend who took the graduation photos went back to Hong Kong without giving Jennifer the photos.

Jennifer’s deception about the graduation ceremony is one of many details that the documentary overlooks and does not explain. Even if Jennifer was going to financially gain from her parent’s deaths, through an inheritance and/or life insurance policy, the documentary makes it look like Jennifer would have been her parents’ only heir, when that is simply not true. The documentary never mentions how other Pan family members felt about this tragedy and about Jennifer being under suspicion for masterminding this “murder for hire” plot.

“What Jennifer Did” is also vague about Jennifer’s employment history after she faked graduating from the University of Toronto. It’s briefly mentioned that she had trouble finding a job as a pharmacist. It doesn’t take a genius to know why she couldn’t be a pharmacist. However, the documentary doesn’t say if she found other types of work or had any type of employment at the time of the crime.

Jennifer was accused of paying for these hit men to carry out this murder-for-hire plot. The money that her parents gave to Jennifer for her fake “university tuition” had already been spent long ago. Where did she get the money to pay for this murder for hire? Don’t expect “What Jennifer Did” to answer that question.

And you can’t really trust a documentary that refuses to mention the important fact that the two victim parents had another child who was affected by this horrible crime. The documentary presents a factually incorrect narrative impression that Jennifer was an only child who felt emotionally smothered by tyrannical parents, who both wanted to keep her as sheltered and family-oriented as possible. But if these parents had so much suffocating control over Jennifer’s life, why didn’t they check up on Jennifer and her supposed university enrollment?

It’s not quite victim blaming, but the documentary presents a narrow and misleading view of the Pan family by having missing or contradictory information. Because “What Jennifer Did” deliberately does not mention Jennifer’s brother Felix, the documentary does not include the parental relationship that Bich and Hann had with Felix, or the sibling relationship that Jennifer had with Felix, to further explain the family’s dynamics. Did the parents treat Felix differently from Jennifer? Obviously, the documentary doesn’t answer that question because it wants to pretend that Felix does not exist.

Three people who knew Jennifer are interviewed in the documentary: Hong Ngo, a Pan family friend; Fernando Baldassini, who was Jennifer’s piano teacher; and Nam Nguyen, who was Jennifer’s friend in high school. Ngo says she knew about Jennifer faking her university education and says that Jennifer’s parents demanded that Jennifer pay back the money they thought went to college tuition. However, the documentary does such a bad job of interviewing people, it’s never made clear when Ngo found out this information.

Baldassini doesn’t offer any information that’s substantial, since it’s obvious he didn’t know what really went on behind closed doors in the Pan family home. Baldassini says the only sign of trouble that he saw was when Jennifer broke down and cried one day during a piano lesson. According to Baldassini, Jennifer said during this meltdown that her parents were driving her crazy. Baldassini says it was the first and only time he saw Jennifer distressed. Not surprisingly, Baldassini says he was completely shocked when Jennifer was accused of masterminding the crime that got her parents shot.

Out of all the interviewees, Nguyen has the most information to share about Jennifer’s volatile relationship with Wong, which lasted off and on, for six or seven years. Nguyen says that Jennifer and Wong frequently argued and broke up. The final breakup was in 2008, and the former couple agreed to be platonic friends. Wong had a girlfriend when the crime happened. By all accounts, Jennifer was obsessed with Wong and was not happy that he had moved on to dating someone else. Nguyen also mentions that he, Jennifer and many of the students at their high school came from Asian immigrant families who expected all family members to be high achievers.

As for the three men who entered the Pan family’s home that night, their names are mentioned, but their photos are never shown in the documentary. It’s a very strange and unexplained omission, considering the outcome of the case. These omissions are just more examples of shoddy filmmaking on display. Any courtroom trials in this case are just briefly mentioned as an epilogue in the documentary.

“What Jennifer Did” completely ignores the racial implications of this case. Many people (including members of the media and investigating police officers) were quick to believe that three black men committed this crime on their own and that a seemingly innocent-looking Asian woman couldn’t have anything to do with it, even though there were massive early clues that she was involved. The police got a lot of answers and evidence when they finally did something they should’ve done earlier: check Jennifer Pan’s phone records.

Between the unexplained omissions of important details and the lackluster way that this story is told, “What Jennifer Did” is a disappointing and irresponsible documentary that could have told so much more to this story. The documentary obviously took more time setting up props and hiring actors for re-enactments than caring about presenting a lot of crucial facts. Viewers will learn more from reading the Wikipedia page for Jennifer Pan than in wasting time watching “What Jennifer Did.”

Netflix premiered “What Jennifer Did” on May 10, 2024.

Review: ‘They Shot the Piano Player,’ starring the voice of Jeff Goldblum

March 14, 2024

by Carla Hay

A scene from “They Shot the Piano Player” (Image by Javier Mariscal/Sony Pictures Classics)

“They Shot the Piano Player”

Directed by Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal

Some language in Portuguese and Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the 2000s (with re-enacted flashbacks to the 1960s and 1970s), the animated docudrama film “They Shot the Piano Player” features a predominantly Latin cast of characters (with a few white people and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: American music journalist Jeff Harris (a fictional stand-in for “They Shot the Piano Player” director Fernando Trueba), investigates the mysterious 1976 disappearance of Brazilian piano player Tenório Jr., who was an highly respected musician in the Bossa Nova musical movement.

Culture Audience: “They Shot the Piano Player” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching unusual documentaries about Brazilian music or true crime cases.

Jeff Harris (voiced by Jeff Goldblum) in “They Shot the Piano Player” (Image by Javier Mariscal/Sony Pictures Classics)

“They Shot the Piano Player” mostly succeeds in its intention to be an unconventional documentary, but much of the story gets bogged down in repetitiveness. Overall, this animated film is watchable for people interested in Brazilian music or true crime. It’s a hybrid of a fictional narrator telling a true story, with audio recordings of real interviews featured in the documentary.

Directed by Fernando Trueba and Javier Mariscal, “They Shot the Piano Player” was written by Trueba. After screening as a work in progress at the 2023 Annecy International Animation Film Festival, “They Shot the Piano Player” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival. The movie then made the rounds at several other film festivals in 2023, including the Toronto International Film Festival and the BFI London Film Festival.

In the production notes for “They Shot the Piano Player,” Trueba (who is a Spanish filmmaker) says that sometime around 2019, he discovered the talent of Brazilian pianist Tenório Jr. while listening to a Brazilian album from the 1960s. Trueba became fascinated with finding out more about Tenório after discovering that Tenório (whose full name was Franciso Tenório Jr.) had vanished while on tour in Argentina in 1976, when Tenório was 35. Trueba went to Brazil and Argentina to interview family members, friends and associates of Tenório to try to solve the mystery of what happened to Tenório. Many of the resulting interviews are featured in “They Shot the Piano Player.”

“They Shot the Piano Player” creates a fictional narrative around these real interviews. In the movie, which takes place in the 2000s, the person doing the interviewing is a fictional New York City-based journalist named Jeff Harris (voiced by Jeff Goldblum), whose quest to find out the truth begins when he writes an article in The New Yorker about Bossa Nova, the music genre that combines Brazilian music and jazz. Bossa Nova, which originated in Brazil in the late 1950s, flourished in Brazil and in other countries.

As a result of this article in The New Yorker, Jeff gets a book publishing deal to write a nonfiction book about the history of Bossa Nova. While listening to a 1960s Brazilian Bossa Nova album, Jeff discovers Tenório Jr. when he hears a piano solo on the album. Jeff is intrigued to find out that Tenório Jr. hasn’t been featured on any musical recordings in more than 30 years. Jeff (who only speaks English) wants to know why, so he travels to Brazil to interview people. Jeff is sometimes accompanied by his Brazilian friend João (a fictional character, voiced by Tony Ramos), who is a tour guide/language interprerter of sorts during these trips.

Through a series of interviews, Jeff finds out that in 1976, Tenório disappeared in the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, during a tour as a band member with singer Vinicius de Moraes and guitarist/singer Toquinho. Jeff then becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of what happened to Tenório, so he travels back and forth between Brazil and Argentina to get answers. (It’s not that much of a mystery, since the title of the movie says it all.) Tenório’s disappearance happened around the same time of the 1976 coup d’état that ousted Isabel Perón as president of Argentina, so it’s not much of a surprise that this political turmoil (and the thousands of innocent people who were victims of it) are part of this story.

Most people who knew Tenório tell Jeff that it was widely believed that Tenório was murdered in Buenos Aires in 1976. But who murdered him and why? Those questions are answered by some people who are interviewed in the movie and an archival interview that Jeff hears. The interviews also reveal what type of person Tenório was by the surviving people who knew him best. Jeff also visits several of the places where Tenório used to go, such as recording studios and nightclubs.

Jeff’s book editor Jessica (a fictional character, voiced by Roberta Wallach) sees how enthusiastic Jeff has become about solving the mystery, so she tells Jeff that instead of writing a book about the history of Bossa Nova, he should instead write a book about what happened to Tenório Jr. “They Shot the Piano Player” actually begins in 2009, after the book is published, and Jeff is doing a book reading at The Strand bookstore in New York City. The rest of the movie is a flashback to Jeff tellng the story about his journey in writing the book.

Through stories and descriptions from interviews, a portrait of Tenório emerges as a highly respected and talented musician who was passionate about music, who didn’t really care about becoming rich and famous, and who had a messy personal life. At the time of his disappearance, married man Tenório had a mistress and a pregnant wife, who was expecting their fifth child. His mistress Malena Barretto (who is interviewed in the movie) was staying with Tenório at a hotel in Buenos Aires on the night of Tenório’s disappearance. She had been feeling sick at the time, so he left the hotel to find a pharmacy to get some medicine for her. That was the last time she saw him.

“They Shot the Piano Player” is packed with several interesting interviews, but after a while, many of them say the same things over and over about how talented and sweet-natured Tenório was. The movie could have used better editing in reducing some of this repetitiveness. There are also some extraneous scenes that look like nothing but travelogue footage.

Most of the people interviewed are musicians who knew Tenório, such as Toquinho, Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, Ben Shank, Caeton Veloso, Milton Nascimento, Jorge “Negro” Gonzales, Ian Muniz, João Donato, Laércio de Freitas, Raymundo Bittencourt, music producer Roberto Menescal and sound engineer Umberto Candardi. Family members interviewed include Tenório’s widow Carmen Magalhäes, his sister Vitoria Tenório and his uncle Manuel Tenório.

Also interviewed are several of Tenório Jr.’s friends in the Rio de Janeiro’s arts community, including Alberto Campana, the owner of Bottle’s Bar and Little, the nightclub where Tenório Jr. got his first big break; poet Ferrreira Gullar, who says that a psychic named Mrs. Haydée told Tenório Jr.’s father that Tenório Jr. was murdered; and family members and associates of de Moraes, such as his ex-wife Marta Santamaría, ex-brother-in-law Carlos Santamaría and friend Elena Goñio. Experts who weigh in with interview include Agrentina’s National Memory Archive coordinator Judith Said, human rights lawyer Luiz Eduardo, filmmaker/university professor Rogério Lima and journalists John Rowles, Nano Herrar and Horatio Verbitsky.

The animation is eye-catching and looks like painting art come to life. However, some people might not like the animation style that’s in this movie. The scenes where Jeff is visiting nightclubs to watch performances are enjoyable. And his investigation will keep viewers interested. It’s especially impactful when Jeff finds out what reportedly happened on the last day of Tenório’s life.

There are pros and cons to Goldblum’s constant narration in this movie. On the one hand, he gives a very good voice performance that remains engaging throughout the film. On the other hand, Goldblum has such a distinctive and famous voice, a lot of vewers might find his celebrity voice distracting. You never forget that you’re listening to Goldblum, which makes it harder to believe the narration is from a character named Jeff Harris.

Despite these narrative flaws, “They Shot the Piano Player” is a very good history lesson about Bossa Nova and about a fairly obscure and underrated Bossa Nova musician. The movie also tells a tragic story of someone who died simply because of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. “They Shot the Piano Player” doesn’t make any statements about all the political turmoil in South America, but it tells a compelling human story about someone affected by this turmoil who left an influential legacy in Brazilian music.

Sony Pictures Classics released “They Shot the Piano Player” in select U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2023, with a wider release in U.S. cinemas on February 23, 2024.

Review: ‘Pathological: The Lies of Joran van der Sloot,’ starring Matthew Holloway, Ricardo Flores, Enrique Flores, Juan Callan, Eva Pacohuanaco, Michelle Kosinski and John Q. Kelly

February 28, 2024

by Carla Hay

Joran van der Sloot in his 2010 mug shot after he was arrested for the murder of Stephany Flores in “Pathological: The Lies of Joran van der Sloot” (Photo courtesy of Peacock)

“Pathological: The Lies of Joran van der Sloot”

Directed by Christopher Cassel

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Peru, Aruba, the United States and the Netherlands, the documentary film “Pathological” features a group of of white and Latin people representing the working-class and middle-class and discussing cases involving convicted murderer Joran van der Sloot.

Culture Clash: After being the main suspect in the 2005 disappearance of 18-year-old American tourist Natalee Holloway in Aruba, Dutch native Jordan van der Sloot (who spent most of his youth living in Aruba) takes Holloway’s loved ones, investigators and the media on “wild goose chases” about what happened to Holloway, even after he is convicted of murdering another young woman in Peru, in 2010. 

Culture Audience: “Pathological: The Lies of Joran van der Sloot” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in getting details of the horrible manipulations that van der Sloot inflicted on people behind the scenes in relation to his crimes.

An archival 2000s photo of siblings Matthew Holloway and Natalee Holloway in “Pathological: The Lies of Joran van der Sloot” (Photo courtesy of Peacock)

“Pathological: The Lies of Joran van der Sloot” is a well-researched documentary that ultimately doesn’t reveal anything new about this notorious murderer, but it does give a very insightful look at how he manipulated people. This documentary film can serve as a helpful way for people to look for warning signs in predatory criminals, in order to prevent becoming possible victims. “Pathological: The Lies of Joran van der Sloot” also shows how the media’s role in covering a famous crime can both hurt and harm the case.

Directed by Christopher Cassel, “Pathological: The Lies of Joran van der Sloot” was produced by NBC News Studios, which is why much of the archival footage comes from NBC News. Peacock (the streaming service distributing this documentary) and NBC both share the same parent company: NBCUniversal. However, this documentary has several exclusive, new interviews that give context and commentary about how certain events related to Joran van der Sloot. This documentary does not glorify him or make him look sympathetic.

Most people first heard about van der Sloot because he was the main suspect in the 2005 disappearance of Natalee Holloway (affectionally nicknamed “Hootie”), an 18-year-old American tourist from Alabama who had recently graduated from high school and was on vacation with several of her friends in Aruba. She had plans to be a pre-med student and had a full scholarship to attend the University of Alabama. The people who knew Natalee who are interviewed in the documentary—including her younger brother Matthew Holloway—describe her as a fun-loving and caring person. In the documentary, Matthew shares a heartbreaking memory of his father desperately searching for Natalee’s body with his bare hands at a garbage landfill in Aruba.

Joran van der Sloot, born in 1987 in the Netherlands, had immigrated with his family to Aruba in 1990. His father Paulus van der Sloot was a prominent attorney. His mother Anita van der Sloot was an art teacher. Joran had two younger brothers who were bullied by him, according to Lisa Pulitzer and Cole Thompson, co-authors of the 2011 non-fiction book “Portrait of Monster: Joran Van Der Sloot, a Murder in Peru, and the Natalee Holloway Mystery.” Pulitzer and Thompson, who are both interviewed in the documentary, say that long before Joran officially got into trouble with the law, he had a history of sexual harassment girls and women, as well as animal cruelty and pathological lying. At the time of Natalee’s disappearance, Joran was close to graduating from high school and had a tennis scholarship to attend St. Leo University in Florida.

That all changed on May 30, 2005, when Holloway was last seen by her friends in the early-morning hours when she left a Carlos’n Charlie’s bar in Oranjestad, Aruba. Witnesses say that she was a passenger in a car with three young men she met at the bar earlier that night: Joran and two friends: brothers Deepak Kalpoe (who was 21 at the time) and Satish Kalpoe (who was 18 at the time). Natalee had been scheduled to leave Aruba later that day but never showed up at her hotel after she was seen leaving in that car.

Over the next several weeks, all three men were arrested multiple times for suspicion over Natalee’s disappearance, but they were eventually released and were never charged because of lack of evidence. Joran’s first arrest in this case happened on the day of his high school graduation. Natalee’s divorced parents Beth Holloway and Dave Holloway were at the forefront in trying to find out what happened and get justice for Natalee. Her disappearance made the news worldwide.

Throughout the years, Joran kept changing his story about really happened the last time he saw Natalee, until he finally confessed in October 2023 that he had murdered Natalee on a beach. However, he has refused to say where her remains are. Although her body has never been found, many people had already believed for years that Natalee was dead due to foul play. (She was legally declared dead in 2012.) Several people in the documentary say that Joran’s father Paulus (who died of a heart attack in 2010) might have helped cover up the crime, or at the very least gave Joran legal advice on how to avoid being blamed for her disappearance.

On the fifth anniversary of Natalee’s disappearance (May 30, 2010), Joran murdered another beloved young woman with a promising future: 21-year-old Stefany Flores (birth name: Tatiana Flores Ramírez), who was a college student studying business. Her bludgeoned body was found in Joran’s room at the Hotel TAC, in Lima, Peru. Surveillance footage shows that she met Joran that night in a casino and went to his hotel room with him. That was the last time that anyone but the killer saw her alive.

After temporarily fleeing to Chile, Joran was arrested and extradited back to Peru, where he was convicted of this murder and sentenced to 28 years in prison. In January 2023, he was convicted of trafficking cocaine while in prison, and 18 years was added to his prison sentence. Joran is not interviewed in the documentary, and neither are his family members or any attorneys that he’s had.

Stefany’s father Ricardo Flores and her brother Enrique Flores are both interviewed in the documentary. Ricardo, who was a race car driver, describes Stephany has his constant race car companion and biggest. Ricardo says of Stephany’s death: “It’s a wound that never heals.”

A brief NBC News interview clip of Beth Holloway is shown at the end of the documentary, but she is not specifically interviewed for this movie. The interview took place after Joran’s public confession of killing Natalee. (He put the confession in writing.) Beth says in this interview clip that the pain of not knowing is worse than the pain of knowing what happened to Natalee. Matthew Holloway says that if he saw Joran in person: “I definitely want to talk to him, and I definitely want to whoop his ass. Which one will come first, I don’t know.”

The editing narrative of “Pathological: The Lies of Joran van der Sloot” goes back and forth between telling the story of Joran’s involvement in the Natalee Holloway case and the Stephany Flores case, instead of telling the story in chronological order. This is an effective way to show the disturbing parallels of how he was able to gain these women’s trust on the night that he met them and then lure them to be in a place where he could be alone with them.

Several people in the documentary say that Joran has a very charming side that masks his evil side, and he can easily fool people into thinking that he’s a “normal” person. He is also described by many people in the documentary as being a pathological liar and a gambling addict. There are other documentaries that have detailed his drug use, but this documentary doesn’t include information about Joran abusing drugs or being addicted to drugs.

Most of all, Joran has all the telltale signs of being a psychopath, say psychiatrists Abigail Marsh and Ayesha Ashai, who are interviewed in the documentary and are up front in saying that they have not evaluated Joran personally. Some of these telltale signs are his cold-blooded and methodical way in which he murdered Stephany Flores and covered up the crime; he doesn’t show empathy, remorse and the ability to take responsibility for wrongful actions that he caused; and his patholocigal lying. Even if the documentary had included an interview with Joran, he would probably tell a lot of lies in the interview.

Some of the people who were tricked by him include Beth Holloway, who were contacted by Joran in 2010, because he said he would tell them where Natalee’s body was if they paid him $250,000. The Holloways notified the FBI, which set up a sting operation for this extortion. The Holloways did not give Joran the full $250,000, but did give Joran about $30,000, which he used to go to Peru to gamble instead of going to a rehab facility in the Netherlands, which his mother had arranged for him. It was during this trip to Peru that Joran killed Stephany Flores.

John Q. Kelly, an attorney for Beth Holloway, says in the documentary he feels very guilty about his involvement in this extortion transaction that enabled Joran to traveled to Peru: “I felt I had blood on my hands.” Adding insult to injury: Until Joran was arrested for the murder, he was able to escape charges of extortion for years, because he once again recanted his statement about knowing what really happened to Natalee.

Stef Watts, a journalist who used to work for Fox News, is also interviewed in the documentary. Watts tells his story about how he was assigned to do a TV interview Joran van der Sloot in 2008, who said he would tell what happened to Natalee if he was paid $25,000. He says during the interview, Watts had to constantly remind himself that Joran was a master manipulator because Joran seemed so friendly at first, but Joran showed flashes of angry impatience over getting the money that he wanted.

After he was paid, Joran said that Natalee died from an accidental fall on a rock, and he hid her body. After the interview, he said it was all a lie, but Fox News aired the interview anyway with full disclosure that Fox News didn’t know what the truth was and had paid for an interview that Joran now says was a lie. It’s yet another example of how Joran was able to get away with something so heinous.

The most telling example of Joran’s more recent manipulations is the documentary’s interview with Eva Pacohuanaco, the Peruvian single mother who was arrested for helping Joran smuggle the cocaine that led to his conviction of drug trafficking. Pacohuanaco says that she met Joran when he was in prison for Stefany Flores’ murder, and she had an intense romance with him. At the time the interview took place, she there was a warrant for her arrest, and she was a fugitive hiding from the law.

Pacohuanaco describes meeting Joran van der Sloot at a vulnerable time in her life, after she was abandoned by the father of her son. On the day she met him she was at the prison with a friend, who was visiting another prisoner. She says she was immediately attracted to Joran because of his eyes. They began exchanging love letters soon after this meeting, and they became sexually intimate, which is allowed in the prison where he is at. She also shows her most-prized possession from the relationship: a keychain that has Joran’s name on one side and her name on the other side.

Even after finding out that Joran was in prison for murder, Pacohuanaco says of her relationship with him: “Joran was a refuge for me. Going into the prison, I felt calm, loved. He made me feel very special.” Joran told Pacohuanaco he was married but that he and his wife were getting divorced. (In 2014, Joran married a Peruvian woman named Leidy, who gave birth to their daughter. As of this writing, they are still legally married.) The documentary shows whether or not Pacohuanaco is still loyal and committed to Joran.

Other people interviewed in the documentary are Juan Callan, who is now retired but who was captain of the Peruvian National Police at the time of Joran’s 2010 arrest; Adeli Abad Marchena, the former Hotel TAC night clerk who found Stephany Flores’ body; and taxi driver brothers Williams Aparana and Oswaldo Aparana, who were unknowingly involved in driving fugitive Joran from the the Peruvian cities of Ica and Nacca, during Joran’s escape to Chile. The Aparana brothers say that Joran acted “normal” when he was their customer, and they had no idea at the time that he had just murdered someone or was running from the law.

Also interviewed are Natalee’s friends Jessica Caiola and Claire Fierman, who were with Natalee on that fateful trip in Aruba; Charles Croes, who was a liaison for Beth Holloway in Aruba; Benvinda de Sousa, a former attorney for the Holloway family; and former NBC News correspondent Michelle Kosinski, who covered the Natalee Holloway extensively during her time with NBC from 2005 to 2014. “Pathological: The Lies of Joran van der Sloot” is a no-frills and informative documentary that tells a straightforward story about many twisted lies of a murderer.

Peacock premiered “Pathological: The Lies of Joran van der Sloot” on February 27, 2024.

Review: ‘Lover, Stalker, Killer, starring Dave Kroupa, Nancy Raney, Jim Doty, Ryan Avis, Tony Kava, Amy Flora and Chris LeGrow

February 19, 2024

by Carla Hay

Dave Kroupa in “Lover, Stalker, Killer” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Lover, Stalker, Killer”

Directed by Sam Hobkinson

Culture Representation: Taking place in Nebraska and Iowa, the documentary film “Lover, Stalker, Killer” features an all-white group of people representing the working-class and middle-class discussing a case involving stalking and murder.

Culture Clash: A bachelor, who works as an automative employee, looks for love online and has the nightmarish experience of getting involved with a woman who stalked him and his loved ones and committed murder. 

Culture Audience: “Lover, Stalker, Killer” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in true crime documentaries that have an uncluttered, cohesive storytelling style.

Dave Kroupa and Amy Flora (both in back row) with their two children in an undated archival photo from the 2000s in “Lover, Stalker, Killer” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Lover, Stalker, Killer” is a skillfully told true-crime documentary that keeps its perspective centered entirely on the victims, their loved ones and law enforcement. It’s a bizarre and fascinating case that doesn’t glorify the perpetrator. The perpetrator’s point of view isn’t really needed since there are no legitimate excuses for the heinous crimes committed in this case.

Directed by Sam Hobkinson, “Lover, Stalker, Killer” has an uncluttered, easy-to-follow style that is gripping from beginning to end, even if viewers already know the answers to the mystery and how the case ended after it went to trial. The documentary does not have interviews with the perpetrator, the perpetrator’s friends or family, or any defense attorneys. These omissions might irritate some viewers who want to know more about the perpetrator, but the more important takeaway from this documentary is how the survivors of these crimes coped with their ordeals and sought justice.

“Lover, Stalker, Killer” is told mainly from the perspective of Dave Kroupa, a longtime mechanic/automotive technician in Nebraska, who became one of the targets of a homicidal stalker. He is the main narrator of the documentary, which is formatted like a “whodunit mystery” to keep viewers in suspense if they don’t know the whole story. Kroupa’s online dating activities were the catalyst for the perpetrator to cause the murder and mayhem that damaged many people’s lives.

The problems started in 2012, when Kroupa had recently moved to Omaha, Nebraska, after a breakup with a former co-worker named Amy Flora, who was his live-in partner. Kroupa and Flora became a couple in 2000, and had two children (a son and a daughter) together. Flora and Kroupa both say in the documentary that their breakup was because they eventually grew apart.

Kroupa describes how his love life was in 2012 this way: “I was wild and free at 35, and I was determined to enjoy it.” He went on multiple dating websites, including Plenty of Fish, which is the only dating website mentioned in the documentary. Through these online dating sites, he met several women. Early on in his online dating experiences, he dated two women (both single mothers) around the same period of time. Both women were about the same age as Kroupa was at the time.

Kroupa says in the documentary that he made it clear to both women from the beginning that he didn’t want to be in a committed or monogamous relationship and he was only interested in casually dating them. He says that both women willingly agreed to this arrangement. Kroupa describes his relationships with both women as fun and compatible in the beginning.

The woman he dated first was Shanna “Liz” Golyar, who had a son and a daughter and owned a cleaning company in Omaha. When things started to cool down between Kroupa and Golyar, Kroupa began dating Cari Farver, an office worker with an interest in computers and who had a son. Farver lived in Macedonia, Iowa, but she worked in Omaha, near the automotive company where Kroupa had been working at the time.

Shortly after Kroupa began dating Farver (about two weeks), Golyar unexpectedly came over to Kroupa’s house to pick up something that she left behind. Kroupa and Farver happened to be on a date at Kroupa’s place at the time. Farver also sometimes stayed overnight at Kroupa’s home since it was close to her job. The two women were briefly introduced, and then Golyar left.

It wasn’t long after this incident when Kroupa began getting harassing messages by text and email from someone identifying herself as Farver. The messages would have insults and other derogatory remarks about Kroupa and Golyar. Kroupa ended the relationship with Farver, but the harassment escalated and eventually included stalking; arson of Golyar’s home; a break-in and burglary of Kroupa’s home; vandalism of Kroupa’s car and Golyar’s car; and violent threats to Kroupa, Golyar, Flora, and the children of Kroupa and Flora.

Meanwhile, Farver couldn’t be located after the harassment began, even when law enforcement did extensive stakeouts and investigations. Farver’s mother Nancy Raney (who is interviewed in the documentary) reported to law enforcement that she received messages by social media, email and text from someone identifying as Farver who was using Farver’s phone and accounts for email and social media. The messages said that Farver had taken a job (with an annual salary of $100,000) in Nebraska and that she didn’t want anyone looking for her. The messages also said that Farver expected her mother to look after Farver’s son.

Farver had bipolar disorder, but Raney insisted to investigators that this mental illness was not the reason why Farver disappeared. Raney also firmly believed that Farver was not doing the harassing and had a feeling that something bad must have happened to Farver, who would not willingly abandon her son. Raney reported Farver as a missing person to authorities, because Raney had not seen or spoken to her daughter by phone after getting these written-only messages.

The news media and investigators at the time could only point to Farver as the main suspect in the harassment, which continued over the course of three years. Farver still could not be located, and there was no proof that she was still alive. It’s at this point in the documentary that it’s easy to figure out who the culprit is and the real motives for these crimes.

By 2015, the case took a turn through the diligent efforts of three people working at the Pottawattamie County Sheriff’s Office in Iowa: Jim Doty, a sergeant; his best friend Ryan Avis, an investigator; and Tony Kava, who worked in the information technology department. What’s even more remarkable is that Kava did most of his work while having a brain tumor, but he decided to delay having brain surgery until an arrest had been made in the case. Doty, Avis, and Kava are interviewed in the documentary to given an inside account of how they were able to solve the case.

Other people interviewed are Chris LeGrow (who was a detective at the time for the Omaha Police Department) and Brenda Beadle, a chief deputy at Douglas County Attorney’s Office in Nebraska. All of the interviewees in the documentary give their crucial views and their step-by-step process in this disturbing case. Ultimately, “Lover, Stalker, Killer” is a compelling story about how crime victims and law enforcement can work together to get justice.

Netflix premiered “Lover, Stalker, Killer” on February 9, 2024

Review: ‘Bitconned,’ starring Ray Trapani, Nathaniel Popper, Jacob Rensel, Kerri Hagner and Robert Farkas

January 1, 2024

by Carla Hay

A 2017 photo of Sam Sharma, Raymond “Ray” Trapani and Robert Farkas in “Bitconned” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Bitconned”

Directed by Bryan Storkel

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Bitconned” features an almost all-white group of people (with one Latin person) talking about their connection to Centra Tech, a Miami-based cryptocurrency company that turned out to be a scam that swindled millions of dollars out of its victims.

Culture Clash: The Centra Tech leaders took advantage of an unregulated cryptocurrency industry to commit widespread fraud. 

Culture Audience: “Bitconned” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in true crime documentaries that explore the dark sides of technology and finance.

Raymond “Ray” Trapani in “Bitconned” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

The documentary “Bitconned” takes a riveting look at the cryptocurrency con artists behind the scam company Centra Tech. The story will leave many viewers feeling repulsed by the outcomes of these crimes. The film editing heightens the absorbing narrative.

Directed by Bryan Storkel, “Bitconned” is the type of documentary that—thanks to some clever editing—leads viewers on a seemingly straightforward path that doesn’t reveal its first big twist surprise until the movie is about halfway over. For people who don’t know all the details before seeing “Bitconned,” it will feel like one outrageous reveal after another by the second half of the movie. “Bitconned” has some re-enactments, but the vast majority of the story is told through interviews given exclusively for the documentary.

“Bitconned” begins by showing the most controversial person interviewed for the documentary: Raymond “Ray” Trapani, one of the co-founders of Centra Tech. He’s seen getting fitted for a designer suit by two tailors while surrounded by mirrors and answering interview questions. It’s quite apt that Trapani is surrounded by mirrors in the movie’s very first scene, because the documentary shows him to be (by his own admission) an unapologetic narcissist.

Trapani and people who know him well repeatedly say in the documentary that ever since he was a kid, he wanted to be a millionaire criminal. He says in the opening scene: “I don’t mind being looked at as a criminal, really. It’s tough. I was doing crimes my whole life—scamming, shit like that.”

He adds, “Times have changed. It’s not that easy to work hard and buy a house. Nowadays, you’ve got to figure out some sort of way to finesse the system. That’s the modern-day American Dream.”

Of course, anyone with common sense can see that housing affordability is a very fake excuse to go into a life of crime. Trapani makes it clear that he decided from a very young age that he wanted to get rich quick through illegal ways. He can’t blame it on things like a housing market being less affordable than it was in previous decades.

When he’s asked how much money Centra Tech scammed, Trapani smirks when replying, “On paper: $32 million. But in reality, we made a few hundred million.” And this is what Trapani says when he’s asked if he would do the same thing all over again: “I would take the risk.”

Trapani (who grew up in Atlantic Beach, New York) first got into major trouble with the law as a teenager in the late 2000s/early 2010s, when he and a close friend named Andrew Aguirre sold prescription painkillers that they got through fake prescriptions. Aguirre, who is interviewed in the documentary, says that he and Trapani were full-blown drug addicts (OxyContin was their drug of choice) during their crime spree. Aguirre describes how Trapani was in their teenage years: “He was trying to be someone from the streets, but he’s not from the streets.”

Trapani actually grew up in a middle-class household, where he and his two brothers were raised by a single mother. Trapani describes his absentee father, who left the family, as “a fucking loser.” The names of Trapani’s father and brothers are not mentioned in the documentary, nor are these three men interviewed.

However, Trapani’s mother Kerri Hagner and her mother Ann Hagner are interviewed. (They are his only family members to be interviewed for the documentary.) Kerri is more willing than Ann to admit knowledge of Trapani’s criminal ways, but Kerri is fiercely protective of him. Kerri is seen on camera essentially threatening the filmmakers that there will be “trouble” if the documentary makes her son look bad. Anyone who sees how Trapani brags about his crimes will know that he’s the one who makes himself look the worst.

Trapani and other people interviewed say that Kerri’s father William “Pop” Hagner (who died of cancer in 2018, at the age of 79) had a tremendous influence on Trapani, who relocated to Miami as a young adult. This grandfather was not only like a father figure to Trapani, but he was also the first investor (reportedly investing $500,000 as seed money) in Trapani’s company Miami Exotics, which was a business that rented luxury cars. Trapani liked to give people the impression that his grandfather was a mafia boss, but Kerri says her father was actually a hard-working man in the elevator-making business.

Bert Feldman, a former friend of Trapani’s, co-founded Miami Exotics and gives details in the documentary about what it was like to work with Trapani and what ruined their friendship. One of the less scathing remarks that Feldman has to say about Trapani is: “He’s always been fascinated with money. He’s obsessed with it. It’s his one true love.”

Another business partner in Miami Exotics was Sam “Shorbee” Sharma, who was an enemy of Trapani’s when they were high school. However, Sharma and Trapani ended up working together as adults because they both shared an obsession with getting rick quick, and they needed each other’s different skills in this partnership. Trapani says that Sharma was good at working on technical details, while Trapani says his own skills were about coming up with business concepts and networking with business colleagues. And although Sharma is not interviewed in “Bitconned,” it’s obvious that their real skills were in being con artists.

Miami Exotics ended up being a disastrously failed business, where Feldman was ousted before things were at their worst with Miami Exotics. Trapani says in the documentary that many of his family members invested in the business, so the success or failure of the business was very personal to him. It’s easy to know why Miami Exotics flamed out, even before the details are talked about in the documentary. Various people blame each other for the demise of Miami Exotics, but it’s obvious that it wasn’t the fault of just one person.

Trapani says it was Sharma’s idea to start a cryptocurrency company in 2017, due to Bitcoin being a hot commodity at the time. And that’s how Centra Tech was born, with Trapani as chief operating officer and Sharma as chief technology officer. Centra Tech claimed to be a company that made bank-affiliated debit cards for cryptocurrency, but it was all a scam.

One of the many lies that Centra Tech told to lure investors was that it was working with Visa on these debit cards. Centra Tech also had LinkedIn accounts with fake work experiences and fabricated academic credentials for Trapani, Sharma and other company executives who went along with the lies.

As an example of Centra Tech’s “fake it ’til you make” it way of doing business, the company’s chief financial officer was hired not because he had a background in finance but because he was the brother of Sharma’s girlfriend. (The girlfriend is not interviewed in the documentary.) Centra Tech’s CFO was Robert Farkas, who describes Sharma as a “genius.”

By contrast, Farkas has almost nothing good to say about Trapani, whom he describes as a mostly incompetent drug addict who spent more time partying, gambling and spending money than doing work. “I don’t remember Ray contributing much of anything,” Farkas says in the documentary. “He had a little mafioso vibe. He loved gambling, and he loved money. And the whole time, he was medicated.”

New York Times reporter Nathaniel Popper, who wrote a pivotal article in 2017 on Centra Tech, says he was intrigued by the cryptocurrency industry because it was filled with “get rich quick” stories, but the truth was much different. “There were scams and frauds everywhere … Centra Tech was the archetype of what went wrong with cryptocurrency.”

Other people interviewed in “Bitconned” include former Centra Tech Jacob Rensel; former Centra Tech developers Martin Pejkov and Filip Burcevek; University of Manitoba professor Andrew Halayko, who has a bizarre connection to the story; a man with the name Jonny B Good, who describes himself as Tapani’s best friend; Securites and Exchange Commission investigator Robert Cohen; federal prosecutor Samson “Sam” Enzer; and attorney Paul Petruzzi.

Although there are obvious villains in “Bitconned,” the documentary also puts a lot of blame on “get rich quick” greed that lures gullible investors into these scams. Rensel admits that he had this type of greed when he decided to invest in Centra Trech, and ths greed blnded him to some warning signs that eventually became too big to ignore. The movie also shows fake images on the Internet and celebrity endorsements can also play a role in getting people to think a scam is legitimate.

Some viewers of “Bitconned” won’t like that two of the former Centra Tech leaders are given so much screen time in this documentary. Farkas tries to portray himself as a victim of Trapani, who openly gloats about the crimes he committed. And the documentary could have used more perspectives from people who survived Centra Tech scams. However, “Bitconned” does not glorify the criminals and exposes them for what they are and how they were able to commit these crimes. It’s the best type of cautionary tale that can help educate people on how not to get fooled by these types of con artists.

Netflix premiered “Bitconned” on January 1, 2024.

Review: ‘Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare,’ starring Debbie Cartisano, Lance Jaggar, Chris Smith, Sharon Fuqua and Charles Brofman

December 29, 2023

by Carla Hay

An archival Challenger Foundation photo from “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare”

Directed by Liza Williams

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” features an almost all-white group of people (with one Asian person) talking about their experiences with controversial entrepreneur Steve Cartisano and the high-priced “wilderness therapy” camps that he founded for troubled juveniles.

Culture Clash: Cartisano, who died of a heart attack in 2019, at the age of 63, was sued several times and had many allegations that his camps illegally abused the children who were forced to be there. 

Culture Audience: “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries that show how abuse and exploitation are excused or covered up, but some questions remain unanswered by the end of the movie.

An archival photo of Debbie Cartisano and Steve Cartisano from “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” succeeds in being a cautionary documentary about the dangers of boot camps that claim to be “tough love” rehab for juvenile delinquents. But the movie needed better investigative journalism about the sexual abuse allegations mentioned near the end. Sensitive viewers, be warned: This documentary is disturbing in its details of child abuse. It’s also the type of documentary that will be infuriating to anyone who thinks the perpetrators exploited the system to get away with horrible acts of violence and other crimes.

Directed by Liza Williams, “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” begins with an awkward mention of celebrity socialite Paris Hilton going public in 2020 about experiencing physical and emotional abuse at various group facilities that she was sent to when she was a “wild child” teenager. At the beginning and end of the documentary, there’s archival footage of a 2021 press conference where Hilton and Ro Khanna (a U.S. Representative from California) made statements, after a congressional hearing to introduce a bill to protect children from abuse in group facilities. After showing this footage in the beginning, the documentary mentions that the documentary actually isn’t about Hilton’s experiences but about the “wilderness therapy” camps founded by Steve Cartisano, who is considered to be the “godfather” of this controversial way of dealing with troubled kids. (In 2019, when he was 63, Cartisano died of a heart attack while he had cancer.)

The mention of Hilton is the documentary’s way of saying that if this abuse could happen to a wealthy heiress, it can happen to anyone. However, it comes across as just using a celebrity name to hook people into watching the movie. The fact of the matter is that “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” is about the types of experiences where children were isolated and deprived of food and bathroom facilities for long periods of time and forced to do strenuous physical activities outdoors in extreme weather conditions. This not the same type of abuse that Hilton said she experienced at a boarding school such as Provo Canyon School in Utah, where she says she was treated like an indoor prisoner and deprived of sunlight for long periods of time.

“Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” places much of the blame for “wildnerness therapy” camps on Cartisano, who is considered to be the first person to take this concept and market it into a business that can generate millions of revenue every year. These camps do not operate like juvenile detention facilities, where kids are sent by the court system. These camps have the kids’ parents or legal guardians sign over the right for the kids to be forcibly taken to these camps, with the intent of punishing the kids enough to scare them out of their troublemaking ways.

Cartisano was a former U.S. Air Force instructor and military special forces officer who had a troubled childhood himself. As mentioned in the documentary, his biological parents gave him up for adoption, and then took him back when he was 2 years old. His biological mother was a heroin addict who died when he was 17. His biological father was reportedly physically abusive.

“Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” has horrific stories from survivors of programs founded by Cartisano, who was mostly based in Utah. And even though he was sued and faced numerous allegations of child abuse in these programs, he would just shut down a program when it had too many legal problems and then start a new business under a different name and in a different location. According to the documentary, rather than toning down the extreme methods used in each program, Cartisano made each subsequent program worse than its predecessor.

First, there was the Challenger Foundation, which Cartisano founded in 1988. The Challenger Foundation sent kids to an isolated area in Utah and made them go on 500-mile hikes to get food. The children were also deprived of bathroom facilities and indoor sleeping quarters. The Challenger Foundation’s biggest controversy was the death of Kristen Chase, a 16-year-old who died in 1990, after she hiked a long distance in extreme heat while enrolled in the Challenger Foundation. Chase’s tragic passing resulted in a wrongful-death lawsuit, whose outcome is detailed in the documentary.

Legal and financial problems led to the demise of the Challenger Foundation, but that didn’t stop Cartisano from being in the “child reform” business. In the early 1990s, he moved on to founding HealthCare America, based in St. Thomas and later in Costa Rica. Instead of making the kids hike in a Utah desert, the kids had to live in harsh conditions on sailboats that went to various places in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.

Pacific Coast Academy, based in Samoa, was Cartisano’s business in the 2000s. He often used the alias Steve Michaels during his Pacific Coast Academy years. Pacific Coast Academy had plans to build a massive facility and used many of the kids in the program as unpaid and untrained workers to do the construction. Critics of Cartisano say that he intentionally misled desperate parents into thinking that the kids enrolled in his programs would be in a safe and healthy environment.

The Challenger Foundation had a 63-day program, but people interviewed in the documentary say that it was not unusual for kids enrolled in the program to stay longer than 63 days if they were being “punished” for not complying with the rules. Other kids stayed longer than 63 days, simply because their parents didn’t want them to come home after the 63 days. Of course, there was an obvious incentive for the camps to extend the enrollment: more money could be made from the people paying to have the kids at the camp.

The documentary makes it clear that it’s not a coincidence that after the scandals that Cartisano had in the United States, he took his operations to countries or territories that had less restrictive laws about the type of business that he was doing. “Hell Camp” also has stories of how Cartisano’s employees would dodge authorities who would investigate complaints about Cartisano’s businesses. A disclaimer at the end of the documentary mentions that any businesses that currently have the names Challenger Foundation, HealthCare America and Pacific Coast Academy have nothing to do with companies founded by Cartisano.

Several survivors of Cartisano’s “hell camps” are interviewed in the documentary. The survivors are identified by their first names only, but their faces and voices are undisguised. The survivors who are interviewed were sent to Cartisano’s camps as teenagers, usually ages 13 to 16. Almost all of them say that the reasons they were sent to the camp were because they had drug problems. Some enrollees had other issues too, such as committing petty crimes, skipping school, or running away from home.

All of them describe experiencing physical abuse from Cartisano’s employees, including assaults, lack of medical care for injuries, food deprivation, sleep deprivation, and basic hygiene deprivation. And they say there was constant verbal and emotional abuse. All of them also say that they’ve had long-term trauma from these terrible experiences.

Challenger Foundation survivors interviewed in the documentary are Nadine, who was in the program in 1989, at the age of 15; a woman named Kinney, who was in the program in 1988, at the age of 13; and Matthew, who was in the program in 1990, at age 15. HealthCare America survivors interviewed are Adam, who was in the program in 1993, at the age of 13; and Ashley, who was in the program in 1993, at the age of 15.

The Pacific Coast Academy survivors who are interviewed are Kurt, who was in the program in 2000, at age 15; and Amber, who was in the program in 2000, at the age of 14. Kurt and Amber knew each other as friendly acquaintances before being in the program, but that all changed when Kurt and other teens in the program were ordered to torture some of the enrollees, including Amber. Kurt admits to it in the documentary, but he says he was just following orders and was too afraid to say no.

Adam’s stoic father Larry is also interviewed and doesn’t seem to have much regret about sending Adam to the HealthCare America program, although he does get a little emotional when he watches an old video of him making a surprise visit to a sobbing Adam in Costa Rica. Larry also says he didn’t know how brutally Adam was treated until it was too late. Larry is one of two parents of a camp survivor to be interviewed in the documentary.

By contrast, Matthew’s mother Kari expresses regret about putting him in the Challenger Foundation program. She remembers thinking at the time about the Challenger Foundation: “I didn’t know what else to do, but this sounds good.” Sharon Fuqua, who sued Cartisano for the wrongful death of her daughter Kristen Chase, is also interviewed, along with Fuqua’s son David, who is Kristen’s younger brother.

Cartisano’s family members and close associates who are interviewed in the documentary don’t really deny the abuse, but they go out of their way to downplay his responsibility in being the leader of a business that enabled or encouraged the abuse. His ex-wife Debbie Cartisano is the one who does the most to push the narrative that Steve was a “good guy” who “meant well” with these programs, but the way his employees behaved was “beyond his control” when he wasn’t at the camps. She also seems more interested in talking about the financial hardships that she had to go through every time Steve had shut down another one of his businesses, rather than Debbie acknowledging any suffering that any child victims experienced because of those businesses.

Also interviewed are Debbie and Steve’s daughter Catie, who openly talks about her troubled teen years of drug addiction and how she recovered from it. Her brother Dave also had the same problems and was sent to Pacific Coast Academy. (He is not interviewed in the documentary, which mentions what happened to Dave.)

Catie says in the documentary: “My dad was brilliant.” But she admits that the scandals and controversies took a toll on the family, and she wanted him to change careers: “I wanted him to do something different. I wanted our family to be normal.” Debbie also says that she wanted Steve to get out of the “child reform” business, but he refused.

The only former Cartisano camp employee interviewed in the documentary is Lance “Horsehair” Jaggar, who says that he immediately bonded with Steve because they were both veterans of the U.S. Air Force. Jaggar is unapologetic about the harsh tactics that were used on the children at these camps. Jaggar says that he doesn’t believe in beatings as punishment, but he thinks spankings are perfectly acceptable. The documentary has archival footage of Jaggar yelling insults at some of the Challenger Foundation kids. You get the feeling that whatever was on camera was very tame compared to what wasn’t on camera.

Jaggar makes this not-very-believable comment about how the kids were treated in these camps: “We broke them down, but we didn’t break them down to hurt them. We didn’t break them down to punish them. We broke them down to get rid of the old crap and help them be a better and more positive person.”

He adds with a sadistic smirk, “Some of the kids were so scared, they’d almost pass out. And that was fine by me. I wanted them to have a little fear. [For] a lot of these kids, this was it, or they were going to jail.”

Also interviewed in the documentary are reporter Chris Smith, who investigated and did news reports of Cartisano camp operations and scandals; attorney Charles Brofman, who represented Steve in several lawsuits; Max Jackson, former sheriff of Utah’s Kane County; and a former U.S. Embassy worker who is only identified by her first name: Mary Lou. The documentary includes a lot of archival footage, such as news reports, interviews that Steve did, and grainy-looking video recordings that were taken at the camps.

Although there is a variety of people interviewed for the documentary, what’s missing is more investigation into the sexual abuse allegations that aren’t mentioned until the last 20 minutes of the movie. Amber says she was sexually abused by a “chief of the village” during her time at Pacific Coast Academy, but the documentary doesn’t mention if the filmmakers followed up on this allegation to try to find this accused abuser to get his side of the story.

And there’s another sexual abuse allegation against someone else that isn’t too surprising, but this allegation is shown so late in the film, it seems like it was mainly put there for shock purposes. The documentary does not give any indication if this allegation is isolated or possibly the tip of the iceberg. If the allegation against this person is true, it’s highly likely that there are many more victims of the same type of sexual abuse, but the “Hell Camp” filmmakers didn’t seem to want to do more investigating.

Even with some noticeable flaws, “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” is a searing look at this unsettling fact: Even when so many people speak their truths about being abused, there are still others who deny or excuse the abuse. This documentary is also a wake-up call about why these types of programs are thriving in a society that should have better ways of dealing with child delinquency. Of course, there are no easy answers, but it should be easy to know when discipline crosses the line into unacceptable and illegal abuse.

Netflix premiered “Hell Camp: Teen Nightmare” on December 27, 2023.

Review: ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’ starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Lily Gladstone

October 19, 2023

by Carla Hay

Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Killers of the Flower Moon” (Photo courtesy of Apple Studios/Paramount Pictures)

“Killers of the Flower Moon”

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Some language in Dhegiha Siouan with no subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Oklahoma, from 1919 to 1926, the dramatic film “Killers of the Flower Moon” (based on the non-fiction book of the same name) features a white and Native American cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: World War I veteran Ernest Burkhart gets caught up in murders of members of the Osage Nation, including family members of his Osage Nation wife, who are being killed to gain possession of land that is rich in petroleum oil.

Culture Audience: “Killers of the Flower Moon” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Martin Scorsese, the star headliners and history-based movies with a top-notch principal cast.

Robert De Niro and Jesse Plemons in “Killers of the Flower Moon” (Photo courtesy of Apple Studios/Paramount Pictures)

Epic in scope and tragic in tone, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is an impactful drama that tells the true story of a shameful part of American history when racism and greed caused the murders of Osage Nation people. The movie is very long but worth seeing. At 206 minutes (nearly three-and-a-half hours), “Killers of the Flower Moon” has moments when the pacing tends to drag. However, the movie is impressive in almost every other way.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Martin Scorsese directed “Killers of the Flower Moon” from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Eric Roth. The screenplay was adapted from David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction book “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” “Killers of the Flower Moon” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” (which takes place in Oklahoma from 1919 to 1926) is fairly straightforward in showing what it’s about early on the story. World War I veteran Ernest Burkhart (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives in the city of Fairfax, Oklahoma, to start a new chapter in his life. Ernest was wounded in the war, so his job opportunities are limited.

Ernest begins working for his cattle-farming uncle William “Bill” Hale, also known as King Hale, who is one of the most powerful and corrupt people in the city. Bill, who is also Farifax’s deputy sheriff, has a fake persona of being an upstanding and lawful citizen. Fairfax and the surrounding cities have a lot of petroleum-rich land that is owned by the Osage Nation tribe of Native Americans/indigenous people, who have a complicated and often uneasy co-existence with the white people who live in the same cities.

Soon after bachelor Ernest arrives in Fairfax, Bill asks him what kind of women appeal to Ernest. Ernest says he likes all types of women and is open to romancing women of Native American heritage. Bill tells Ernest that it would be to Ernest’s financial advantage if he marries and has children with an Osage Nation woman, in order for Ernest to get control of some of the Osage Nation land that can make the owners wealthy from the petroleum oil mined from the land.

There’s a very sinister aspect to this inheritance-by-marriage scheme: Osage Nation people in the area have been dying in alarming numbers in the region. Many of these deaths look like accidents or suicides but are actually murders. This period of time was called the Reign of Terror.

The local law enforcement controlled by white people are doing little to nothing to investigate these deaths and hinder any investigations from Osage Nation officers. It isn’t long before Ernest gets involved in these murders. None of this is spoiler information, since “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a history-based drama.

At Bill’s urging, Ernest begins courting an Osage Nation woman named Mollie Kyle (played by Lily Gladstone), who has hired Ernest to be her driver. Mollie is the movie’s frequent voiceover narrator. Ernest and Mollie have a mild flirtation that quickly grows into mutual sexual attraction. Mollie genuinely falls in love with Ernest. Meanwhile, Ernest seems to have romantic feelings for Mollie, but he’s more in love with what he can get out of this marriage. After a quick courtship, Mollie and Ernest get married and they have children together.

At the time that Mollie and Ernest get married (she changes her last name to Burkhart), her family consists mostly of women. Mollie’s widowed mother Lizzie Q (played by Tantoo Cardinal) suspects that white people are murdering Osage Nation people, so she doesn’t trust white people, and she disapproves of Mollie’s marriage to Ernest. Mollie’s sister Reta (played by Janae Collins) is married to a white man named Bill Smith (played Jason Isbell), who was previously married to Mollie’s other sister Minnie (played by Jillian Dion), who died of a “wasting illness.” Mollie has another sister named Anna (played by Cara Jade Myers), who is feisty and who likes to party.

Other people who are connected in some way to the murders and/or the investigations include Federal Bureau of Investigation official Tom White (played by Jesse Plemons); Osage Nation Chief Bonnicastle (played by Yancey Red Corn); and a lowlife thug named Kelsie Morris (played by Louis Cancelmi), who works closely with Bill. Other supporting actors in the movie include John Lithgow as Prosecutor Peter Leaward and Brendan Fraser as defense attorney W.S. Hamilton. Fraser’s over-the-top performance verges on being campy and doesn’t quite fit the more grounded and somber tone of the movie.

A valid criticism of “Killers of the Flower Moon” is it that the Osage Nation people in the movie aren’t the center of the story and should have been given more screen time and better character development. Except for Mollie and her Osage Nation family members, Osage Nation people are primarily depicted in the movie has having vague or non-existent personalities. Without Mollie and her family, “Killers of the Flower Moon” would be a largely soulless portrayal of hate crimes and racial injustice.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” accurately shows that the wealthy Osage Nation people couldn’t get access to their money without getting permission from the white government officials (in this case, all white men) who controlled the Osage Nation’s finances. Ironically, similar dynamics exist in the film industry, in terms of who usually gets to tell stories about Native American people in big-budget movies. (Not much has changed since the Oscar-winning blockbuster success of 1990’s “Dances With Wolves.”) It’s unlikely that Native American filmmakers—no matter how talented or experienced—would have been given the same privileges or budget to tell this story as the all-white team of producers, screenwriters and director who made “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

One of the more fascinating aspects of “Killers of the Flower Moon” is how the personalities of Ernest and Mollie change during the period of time when this story takes place. At first, Ernest appears to be somewhat of an easily led buffoon who doesn’t seem to know much about life. Over time, Ernest shows that he’s much more manipulative and cunning than he first appears to be. He’s the type of schemer whose loyalties to anyone except himself are very murky, questionable, and can quickly shift to suit his own agenda.

Mollie starts off being confident and outspoken, with more power in the relationship. After all, she was Ernest’s boss when they began their courtship. However, as time goes on, after Mollie and Ernest are married, she becomes worn down and insecure by tragedy and illness. (Mollie, who has diabetes, is being slowly poisoned by tainted insulin without her knowledge.) Mollie’s unconditional love for Ernest also blinds her to the dark side of his personality, so she becomes too trusting of what he’s saying and doing.

The movie tries to push a narrative that Ernest is a loving father and husband who’s conflicted about his ulterior motives. However, during the latter half of the film, there’s no doubt about what type of husband Ernest is, because of his knowledge about why Mollie is slowly dying. Ernest is also not shown having a close bond with his and Mollie’s children (Elizabeth, Cowboy, and Anna), who are all under the age of 7, and are mostly background characters.

Vanessa Rose Pham has the role of Elizabeth as a baby. Kinsleigh McNac has the role of Elizabeth at ages 2 and 3. Elizabeth Waller has the role of Elizabeth at ages 3 to 5 years old. Alexis Waller has the role of Elizabeth at ages 5 and 6. Roanin Davis has the role of Cowboy as a baby. Bravery Lane Nowlin has the role of Cowboy at ages 2 and 3. Mamie Cozad has the role of Anna as a baby. Lux Britni Malaske has the role of Anna at 2 years old.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” is not a murder mystery, because it’s revealed very early on in the story who are the main perpetrators of these crimes. The movie is more of a chronicle of systemic racism and how it leads to incalculable damage that goes beyond city borders. The story is told through the lens of the relationship between Mollie and Ernest as a way for viewers to see how one particular family was affected by evil disguised as entitlement.

On a technical level, “Killers of the Flower Moon” is nearly flawless, when it comes to cinematography, production design, costume design and musical score. (Robbie Robertson, the composer for “Killers of the Flower Moon,” passed away in August 2023.) “Killers of the Flower Moon” succeeds in immersing viewers into this particular community where “truth” and “justice” can be warped and have different meanings to people.

People who watch “Killers of the Flower Moon” can expect the usual excellence from the principal cast members, although there’s a lot of familiarity to DiCaprio and De Niro portraying dishonorable characters in Scorsese movies, as they have done so many times already. Gladstone has the breakout performance in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” since her depiction of Mollie is absolutely superb. Although the Reign of Terror involved many people in several regions, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” along with Gladstone’s performance, shows with disturbing clarity the horror of a duplicitous serial killer as a trusted member of one’s own household.

Apple Studios and Paramount Pictures will release “Killers of the Flower Moon” in U.S. cinemas on October 20, 2023.

Review: ‘BS High,’ starring Roy Johnson, John Barnham Sr., Ben Ferree, Justin Daniel, Bomani Jones, Trilian Harris and Quincy Talmadge

July 9, 2023

by Carla Hay

Roy Johnson in “BS High” (Photo by David Markun/HBO)

“BS High”

Directed by Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe

Culture Representation: The documentary “BS High”—about a corruption scandal involving a football team for the illegitimate school Bishop Sycamore High School in Columbus, Ohio—interviews a mix of African Americans and white people representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Roy Johnson took money and young athletes’ dreams to start a U.S. football team affiliated with fabricated high schools.

Culture Audience: “BS High” will appeal mostly to people who have an interest in U.S. football and sports scandals.

Justin Daniel in “BS High” (Photo by David Markun/HBO)

“BS High” is a heartbreaking and cautionary tale about con artists taking advantage of young athletes’ hopes and dreams. This documentary is also a helpful guide to see how pathological liars operate and how not to get fooled. “BS High” had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival.

Directed by Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe, “BS High” is an unflinching portrait of a self-admitted con man and several of the victims whose lives were damaged by his lies and scams. The chief villain of the story is Roy Johnson, but he was enabled and helped by other people—most of whom are not interviewed in the documentary, for reasons that aren’t really explained in the documentary. Johnson was considered the mastermind of the schemes he was involved with, and he is interviewed in “BS High.” The interviews with Johnson took place in Los Angeles in 2022.

The documentary confirms that Johnson (who was born in 1980), by his own admission, has a problem with consistently telling the truth, he’s very insecure, and he has serious anger issues. “Anger is a blanket emotion,” Johnson says early on in “BS High,” where he is seen asking some of the documentary’s crew members what kind of body language he should have during his on-camera interviews. “Do I look like a con man?” he asks with a smirk.

“BS High” begins with archival footage of the event that marked the beginning of the scrutiny that led to the downfall of Johnson’s biggest scam. On August 29, 2021, ESPN did a live telecast of a high school football game between the well-known IMG Academy and and the obscure Bishop Sycamore High School at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio. It was one of the most embarrassing football game defeats ever shown on TV. The final score was 58-0, with IMG winning against a team that fumbled and stumbled its way to a resounding loss.

This TV exposure of Bishop Sycamore High School (based in Columbus, Ohio) and the incompetence of its football team led many people to look into what this high school was all about and how they got these football players, many of whom looked a lot older than high-school age. And what was discovered was one of the biggest U.S. football scandals of all time: Bishop Sycamore High School did not exist as an accredited school and did not have academic courses. It was actually the name of a sketchy recruitment program led by Johnson.

“BS High” obviously has a double meaning that is pointed out in the documentary. BS can stand for Bishop Sycamore, and it can stand for “bullshit.” The latter is what Johnson has been accused of serving up for many years by many people. He is still embroiled in lawsuits for fraud and unpaid bills. In “BS High,” Johnson dismisses the dishonest way that his football team ended up on ESPN. He says all that matters was that the team made it that far to be in a game that was televised on ESPN.

This “all publicity is good publicity” attitude seems to fuel a lot of Johnson’s motivation to participate in this documentary, as he brags about how far he took his schemes, with little or no regard for the people he hurt along the way. Johnson acts as if it’s an accomplishment that he’s now the subject of a documentary because of all his troubling actions. But instead of Johnson coming across as a movie star, he comes across as someone desperately trying to spin his story and create more smoke and mirrors for his already ruined reputation.

Journalist/author Andrew King says in “BS High” that he isn’t surprised that Johnson agreed to be interviewed for the documentary: “He could be the next in a long line of people who falls on his own sword because he talks to much in a documentary.” Not only does Johnson talk a lot, he also heinously laughs when he thinks about his scams and how many people he fooled. And, at times, he gets angry and blames his victims for being “stupid.”

“BS High” gives some background info, most of it told by Johnson, to give context for how he turned out the way that he did. Johnson says that as a child, he was obsessed with the action TV series “The A-Team” and identified the most with Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, the leader of the team, played by actor George Peppard. “I literally thought I was Hannibal,” Johnson comments. The Hannibal character in “The A-Team” was a military commander, a strategist, a master of disguises and an amateur actor. Hannibal’s signature line was “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Like many con artists, Johnson failed in a career where he targeted people as victims. By his own admission, Johnson says that he was a failed athlete. Johnson says that he got an internship with the New England Patriots, which influenced him to want to become a general manager in professional football. Around the same time, Johnson says he was “mentoring” his younger brother, who accomplished something that Johnson could not accomplish: He got a football scholarship.

Johnson says in the documentary that his “mentoring” of his younger brother led to his interest in helping other young football players. “For me,” Johnson says of this brotherly “mentorship” experience, “it was an opportunity to take it from helping my brother and a few people to an entire school.” It’s doubtful that anyone in Johnson’s family is looking up to him now. None of his family members is interviewed in this documentary.

Eventually, Johnson teamed up with John Barnham Sr. to co-found Christians of Faith Academy, a non-profit group aimed at helping underprivileged youth, most of whom are African American. Even though the word “academy” was in its title, Christians of Faith Academy was never an accredited school and didn’t have any academic courses. Instead, it was essentially a recruitment program for teenage football players, with Johnson as the head “coach.”

Many of these children and their parents willingly went along because they thought this program was legitimate and because Johnson filled their heads with big promises that he could turn their sons into college students with football scholarships who could then become National Football League (NFL) recruits. The Christians of Faith Academy, for a while, was funded by money that was flowing in from donations and sponsors that Johnson takes most of the credit for getting, even though he had no previous experience in managing an athletics program for high schoolers. Johnson has never had the required permit to coach high school football.

“BS High” co-directors Free and Roe are heard off-camera occasionally asking Johnson some interview questions or responding to some of the things he says. At one point, Barnham’s name is mentioned to Johnson, who acts like he doesn’t remember who Barnham is. Eventually, Johnson admits that Barnham was his partner in Christians of Faith Academy, but Johnson insists that Barnham wasn’t as involved as Johnson was in managing the academy. Barnham does not say much in the documentary, but Barnham says that he’s not surprised that Johnson pretended not to remember Barnham.

Johnson freely admits to having a “fake it ’til you make it” attitude. He says of his philosophy to get money out of people: “Do what the people who have money do, even if you don’t have the money.” Johnson also admits that he is “insecure” and “very resourceful.” He adds, “And that’s a very bad combination.”

And what that “bad combination” led to was Johnson overspending and not paying hefty bills. Johnson shrugs off his debts (the documentary estimates that he owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to untold numbers of people, some of whom are suing him) as if it’s just his way of doing business. Johnson and other people in the documentary say that his attitude has always been that he needs to spend money in order to make money.

As a religious non-profit group, the Christians of Faith Academy was allowed to get certain tax breaks. What the Christians of Faith Academy was not allowed to do was misrepresent itself as a school for academics when soliciting donations and other funds. The downfall of the Christians of Faith Academy began when the African Methodist Episcopal Church withdrew its support after reports began surfacing that the Christians of Faith Academy was not a legitimate school and funds were being mishandled.

In “BS High,” Johnson makes an “X-Men” reference when he talks about how he tried to prevent the Christians of Faith Academy from being shut down: “I’m Magneto. These are my mutants, and I’m fighting for them.” In Marvel’s “X-Men” comic books and movies, the main characters are mutants. Magneto is a mutant villain. After Christians of Faith Academy went out of business, Johnson founded Bishop Sycamore High School.

Ben Ferree, a civil rights investigator who used to work for the Ohio Athletic Association Foundation, was one of the first people to do an in-depth investigation into Johnson’s shady business dealings. Ferree says that the Christians of Faith Academy and Bishop Sycamore High School were the same scams under different names. Bishop Sycamore High School was also registered as a religious non-profit group.

Many of Johnson’s athlete victims dropped out of real high schools in order to get “training” at Bishop Sycamore High School. And in some cases, the documentary alleges that certain Bishop Sycamore High School “students” were actually over the age of 19, which is the cutoff age to play in league-sanctioned high school football. IMG Academy (which is based in Bradenton, Florida) is a famous training institution for high schoolers to be recruited into National Collegiate Athletics Association football. Bishop Sycamore High School was marketed as being like an IMG Academy for Ohio.

More powerful than any of Johnson’s statements in the documentary are the interviews and testimonies from the football players who got pulled into Johnson’s schemes. Trilian Harris, Adrian Brown Jr., Justin Daniel, ZyShawn Johnson (no relation to Roy Johnson), Isaiah Miller, Mecose Todd, Kymetrius Gates and Quincy Talmadge all talk about what it was like to be fooled by Roy Johnson, who dangled promises of making them star football players who could be recruited for football scholarships by top-tier football universities, which would then pave the way to fame and fortune in the NFL.

All of these victims describe Roy Johnson as being very charismatic but also having a cruel side that took pleasure in verbally and physically abusing them. Roy Johnson admits to having a history of violence, including beating up homeless men. The documentary also mentions Roy Johnson being arrested in 2020, for physically assaulting his girlfriend at the time. The outcome of that domestic violence case is mentioned in the documentary.

At first, Roy Johnson’s football victims were dazzled by what seemed to be Johnson’s successful image. But over time, they saw many things that were wrong and inappropriate about the “training” and road trips they would take. It’s alleged in the documentary that money became so scarce, Johnson ordered his young athletes to steal food for them to eat. They also witnessed Johnson commit violence against them and other people.

More than any money that could have been defrauded is the incalculable emotional cost and the sense of betrayal that the victims feel. Some of his victims, such as Harris, describe having some form of post-traumatic stress disorder because of what they experienced during their time “training” with Roy Johnson. Daniel breaks down and sobs when he describes how being involved in Bishop Sycamore High School ruined his chances of getting into a good college. Harris was admitted into Grambling State University, but he had his admission revoked when the school found out that he was affiliated with Bishop Sycamore High School.

And where were the parents during all this scamming? Only two parents are interviewed in the documentary: Harris’ mother Kristi Ferguson and Talmadge’s mother Erica Cain. They both echo what their sons say about being fooled by Roy Johnson’s smooth-talking ways. Both mothers also say that because of their financial struggles raising their sons as single mothers, they were grateful at the time that someone was taking an interest in training their sons to get football scholarships.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include journalist Bomani Jones; videographers Mike Moline and Anthony Marino, who were briefly hired by Roy Johnson during his Christians of Faith Academy days; and Dave Pando, the owner of a paintball business that says Roy Johnson still owes $800 on an unpaid bill. When Roy Johnson is asked about this unpaid paintball bill, he laughs and says he doesn’t remember anything about this debt, but if it exists, he says it’s chump change to him.

Roy Johnson has a nonchalant, cold or angry victim-blaming reaction when he’s asked how he feels about what he did to his victims, especially those whose young lives he altered in very damaging ways. During one comment, Roy Johnson shrugs and says, “Life happens.” During another comment, he says of his long history of deception: “I’m a con man-ish.” In another comment, Johnson says with no irony whatsoever, “I’m the most honest liar I know.”

But a moment comes when Roy Johnson’s cocky façade comes off, and he looks shaken to the core. During an interview, Harris calls Roy Johnson “evil” for what Roy Johnson did to his victims. Roy Johnson and Barnham, sitting next to each other, are shown this comment on a laptop computer. Barnham says nothing, but guilt and remorse are shown all over his face. Roy Johnson angrily gets up and storms out of the interview and says that it’s all a set-up to make him look bad. Later, Roy Johnson comes back to resume the interview, and he tries to look like he’s the victim.

Some people might have criticisms about “BS High” giving Roy Johnson the publicity he obviously craves. However, anyone who watches the entire documentary will see that “BS High” does not make Roy Johnson look glamorous or make him look like an anti-hero. It does the opposite: It exposes his duplicitous personality and shows how cowardly he can be when he’s confronted with the damage that his misdeeds have done.

Many viewers watching “BS High” will be infuriated by how certain people featured in this documentary got away with certain injustices for as long as they did. “BS High” could have done more to explain why certain enablers aren’t in the documentary or what comment, if any, they had if they were contacted by the “BS High” filmmakers. However, “BS High” is an urgent wake-up call to look at the bigger picture of a system that allowed this abuse and fraud to thrive in the first place and what should be done to prevent this abuse and fraud in the future.

HBO will premiere “BS High” on August 23, 2023.

Review: ‘Lovely Jackson,’ starring Rickey Jackson, Edward Vernon, Anthony Singleton, Mark Godsey, Brian Howe, Mary McGrath and Clarissa Jackson

December 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

Rickey Jackson in “Lovely Jackson” (Photo courtesy of Zodiac Features)

“Lovely Jackson”

Directed by Matt Waldeck

Culture Representation: The true crime documentary “Lovely Jackson” features a group working-class and middle-class African American and white people discussing the case of Rickey Jackson, who spent 39 years in prison for a 1975 murder in Cleveland that he did not commit.

Culture Clash: Jackson and several people connected to the case talk about his struggles to prove his innocence and how racism played a role in his conviction.

Culture Audience: “Lovely Jackson” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about wrongful imprisonments and racial injustice.

Rickey Jackson in “Lovely Jackson” (Photo courtesy of Zodiac Features)

“Lovely Jackson” is an example of a true crime movie that not only shines a light on a tragic failure in the U.S. criminal justice system but also offers a beacon of hope for people who are seeking justice. Rickey Jackson tells his story of being wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for murder in this artfully directed and riveting documentary. In May 1975, money order collector Harold J. Franks was shot to death during a robbery of a convenience store in Cleveland. The truth about who committed thes crimes has been at the center of various different trials and a lot of controversy.

In August 1975, Jackson (who was 18 years old at the time) was found guilty of these crimes in a jury trial. The prosecution’s main evidence was testimony from Edward “Ed” Vernon, an acquaintance of Jackson’s, who named Jackson as the shooter, even though Jackson had an alibi when the robbery/murder took place. A .38 caliber gun was used in the shooting, but this type of gun was never linked to Jackson. In December 1975, Jackson was sentenced to death.

Jackson was also convicted of attempted murder because Anna Robinson, the wife of the store’s owner, was shot during the robbery, but she survived. Wiley Bridgeman and his brother Ronnie Bridgeman (who now goes by the name Kwame Ajamu) were convicted of being Jackson’s accomplices in these crimes. The Bridgeman brothers also proclaimed their innocence in these crimes. At the time of these convictions in 1975, Wiley was 21, while Ronnie was 24.

Jackson always maintained his innocence, but he stayed in prison for 39 years. He has a remarkable story that won’t be fully revealed in this review, in case people don’t know what happened during his arduous fight to prove his innocence. Even though the outcome of the case is extraordinary, “Lovely Jackson” never lets viewers forget that what isn’t so remarkable or extraordinary are the untold numbers of wrongly convicted people who are in prison and can’t get the help or justice that they need.

Directed by Matt Waldeck, “Lovely Jackson” is a documentary that has some re-enactments that appear almost like dream sequences. Jackson serves as the main narrator of the story, while the documentary also includes interviews with people who know Jackson and are connected to his case in some way. The movie is in black-and-white during the bleakest parts of the story and switches to color for certain interviews and archival footage when the story takes some twists and turns.

Jackson tells harrowing tales of what life was like in prison, including the vicious beatdowns he witnessed, the tricky tightrope of navigating social alliances among criminals, and shutting down emotionally as a means of survival. He says he adopted this attitude in prison: “I don’t give a fuck. I’ll do whatever it takes. Don’t bother me. That’s the attitude that I had to have to survive in there.”

How did Jackson end up in this awful nightmare? According to interviews in the documentary and court testimony, Vernon (who was 12 years old in 1975) saw Jackson and some friends among the curious bystanders who showed up at the crime scene after the robbers/murderers got away. Vernon came forward as a witness. And in the police interrogation room, Vernon named Jackson and the Bridgeman brothers as the culprits, even though there was no physical evidence linking these three men to the crimes.

Jackson lost more than his freedom during his time in prison. He says that his family members stopped visiting him and communicating with him after a while, until he had no visitors or communication from any family or friends for nearly 25 years while he was in prison. He says that this estrangement wasn’t because his loved ones believed he was guilty.

Jackson thinks it was because it was too painful for them to see him in prison for crimes he didn’t commit, and avoiding him was the best way that they knew how to get on with their lives. He comments, “I never wanted anyone to put their life on hold for me because I was in prison. I just wanted them to not forget about me.”

Jackson breaks down and cries at the memory of when the police came to his family’s home to arrest him. His family was dragged outside, rounded up like criminals, and forced to do whatever the police told them to do. Jackson says tearfully, “Just seeing that there did something bad to me … That feeling of helplessness.” He also describes in detail the police brutality he went through in the investigation, where he was punched so hard that he lost consciousness. He remembers the police using a buffer when assaulting him so that their punches wouldn’t leave visible injuries.

Even with all this abuse and degradation, Jackson refused to make a false confession. In 1978, Jackson was among 53 inmates in Ohio whose death sentences were vacated and changed to life in prison. During all of his parole board hearings, Jackson refused to say he was guilty. During his long and torturous appeal process to get a new trial, Jackson also refused any plea bargain where he would have to plead guilty, even if it meant that he would be released from prison earlier than expected.

Jackson also talks about how he used his time in prison to educate himself and find ways to get his appeals heard by the right people. It was never easy, of course, because he dealt with many years of rejections and false hope. At times, it felt like he was in a very lonely battle for his freedom, since many of his early supporters faded away and seemed to forget about him. It’s a heartbreaking reality for many innocent people who are in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

The re-enactments and dreamlike sequences in “Lovely Jackson” are all in black and white. Some of the sequences show Jackson screaming in slow-motion while describing some of his moments of deepest despair. He talks about his bouts with depression. Jackson also appears in some flashback scenes as an observer to what his life was like in the past. The actors who appear in these re-enactments and dreamlike sequences include Mario Beverly as a young Jackson, Devito Parker Jr. as a young Vernon, and Dijon Kirkland as Jackson’s beloved mother.

What’s even more compelling than the re-enactments is the story of what happened in real life. Even though there aren’t a lot of people interviewed in the documentary (a wise choice since this movie didn’t need too many talking heads), “Lovely Jackson” has a fairly well-rounded group of people who are interviewed. What’s also impressive is how candid the interviewees are in the documentary.

Karen Smith, the only eyewitness to the murder, blasts the prosecution for not calling her as a witness in Jackson’s first trial. Mary McGrath, assistant county prosecutor of Ohio’s Marion County, had a vested interest in not letting Vernon’s conviction be overturned, even though she wasn’t part of Jackson’s first trial. In “Lovely Jackson,” McGrath admits that Smith’s testimony was more important than any recantation that Vernon (the prosecution’s star witness) might have made.

A remorseful Vernon does a sit-down interview where he discusses feeling guilty about being the main reason why three innocent people were sent to prison. He says that the police put pressure on him to name people as the culprits, and that the police weren’t concerned finding any evidence against the people he named. Vernon opens up about having suicidal thoughts when he was younger because he felt so ashamed of his role in these wrongful convictions.

It’s mentioned several times in the documentary that Jackson being African American had a lot do with the raw deal that he got in a criminal justice system that tends to gives worse punishments to people of color for the same crimes that white people commit. Jackson’s working-class background also affected his ability to get good legal representation in a case that should never have resulted in him being indicted, due to the lack of evidence.

One of the best things about “Lovely Jackson” is how it shows the heroes who helped Jackson in his quest for justice. Anthony Singleton, a pastor in Cleveland, was instrumental in getting Vernon to recant his original testimony about Jackson, after years of Vernon refusing to publicly comment on the case. The documentary includes an emotionally impactful scene with Singleton and Vernon demonstrating how Vernon had a change of heart.

Ohio Innocence Project co-founder Mark Godsey and defense attorney Brian Howe (who was Jackson’s co-counsel during Jackson’s second trial) are also interviewed and give vivid details about the appeals process and the massive amount of work (and numerous setbacks) during this process. Another of Jackson’s champions who came along later in Jackson’s life is his wife Clarissa Jackson, who is one of the documentary’s interviewees. The documentary is named after their daughter Lovely Jackson.

“Lovely Jackson” had its world premiere at the 2022 American Black Film Festival. In 2022, the documentary was also screened at the Montreal International Black Film Festival, the Red Rock Film Festival and San Diego International Film Festival. It’s the type of memorable movie that should have a chance to be seen by more people. Rickey Jackson’s story has a lot of tragedy, but it’s also a remarkable and inspirational testament to the power of never giving up during seemingly impossible odds.

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